The world of sport haunted by ghost of Spanish flu

History repeats itself on larger scale in 2020 with COVID-19

The world of sport has changed forever.

With the ongoing COVID-19 viral outbreak, various leagues and sports bodies across the globe have been thrown into disarray. In North America alone, the NHL, NBA and MLS have suspended their seasons.

The MLB has delayed the start of its 2020-21 season, and only the NFL believes its season will start on time.

Outside the professional ranks, you have the Canadian Hockey League, United States Hockey League, NCAA and U Sports all falling like dominoes as COVID-19 spreads throughout the globe.

All cancelled, and all going without a champion in 2019-20.

The pros, though, aren’t ready to throw in the towel.

Most recent reports have the NHL asking its teams to submit arena dates for August as the league seems bound and determined to finish the season, even if it means giving players no break between 2019-20 and the 2020-21 season slated to start in October.

While other leagues are all right calling it a year, the NHL will explore every option to crown a Stanley Cup champion — because it’s already gone through this once before.

1919: The rise of Spanish flu and fall of Lord Stanley

Since it was first awarded in 1893, the Stanley Cup has gone unclaimed just twice in its 126-year history. The latest came in 2005, when a labour stoppage led to the 2004-05 season being cancelled.

The first came just over 100 years ago under unsettlingly similar conditions.

In 1918, the world was still wandering through the aftermath of the First World War, picking up the pieces left behind after the greatest conflict our planet had seen to that point. People were sick and tired of war, and soon the former would outrank the latter.

Although the exact location of origin is unclear, the Spanish flu — an H1N1 virus with avian origins — spread throughout the globe in a pandemic from 1918 to 1919. It is estimated that one-third of the Earth’s population was infected and approximately 50 million people died.

Like the COVID-19 virus, the world came to a halt, and so did the sports world — or at least hockey. But even then, the leagues and teams involved battled to the bitter end.

The 1919 Stanley Cup final was fought between the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens and the Pacific Coast Hockey Association’s Seattle Metropolitans.

Seattle crushed Montreal in a lopsided 7-0 game-one win, to which the Canadiens responded by tying the series up in game two. The Metropolitans took game three, the clubs drew game four and Montreal again evened the series with a game five win.

Yet the win was not the biggest story coming out of game five — Montreal defender Joe Hall collapsed on the ice and was taken to the hospital.

In the two-day break between games, more Canadiens players joined Hall in hospital due to flu-like symptoms, along with team general manager George Kennedy. Multiple options to continue the series were explored but rejected, and when Montreal offered to forfeit the final, Seattle declined.

The Metropolitans didn’t want to win that way, but eventually this meant nobody would.

In the following days, most of the infected Canadiens players began to improve — except for Hall, who contracted pneumonia and died on April 5, 1919.

The series was never finished.

Now, over a century later, history seems doomed to repeat itself — and this time more championships are ready to fall.

2020: COVID-19 and a tsunami of cancellations

In 1919, the sports world was a different place. While the Cincinnati Reds won the 1919 World Series, the Super Bowl was still almost 50 years away from existing, the NBA wouldn’t be around until after the end of the Second World War and the MLS didn’t exist until 1996.

U Sports — then known as CIAU Central — was in its formative years, and so too was the NCAA.

The Grey Cup wasn’t awarded in 1919 either, though this was due to a rules dispute and not the Spanish flu.

We are currently in unprecedented territory in North American sports. For generations, sports have been the shield people hide behind when times get tough, when they need a little distraction from tragedy and strife.

One need only cast an eye back to Sept. 21, 2001, as the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets took to Shea Stadium to play the first professional sporting event in New York since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

For so many, the crack of Mike Piazza’s bat off his eighth-inning game-winning home run is seared into their memories as the ultimate statement of “We’re back.”

Now, the world doesn’t have that — yet. Nobody knows who will be the first league to try and come back, and some have already said they won’t until next season.

Unlike 1919, it’s not just one sports league falling victim — it may be all of them.

For many in the sports world, we will now be left with 2020: the year without champions.